Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Business Indeed

I'm consistently surprised by how easily people bomb out of this writing business. For example, one friend of mine has had a half-dozen plot treatments sitting on his desk for months. He wants to send them in, except the high probability of his work ending up in a publisher's round filing bin keeps him far from the post office. Another talked for months about how fiction would become his way out of the rat race, his own peculiar promised land always flowing with bills and bullion. Last I spoke with him, he'd decided to get into stand-up comedy because he thought he could get his foot in the door easier.

Now, everyone who writes wants to get published. It's axiomatic. And we're disappointed every time another rejection letter turns up in the mailbox. We also would like monetary success along with it, natch. But consider: Even if we do manage to achieve steady work in the industry, it's no guarantee of boundless wealth. And even if we somehow manage to rival Rowling and King in the riches department, who's to say anyone will still be reading our stuff in fifteen years? Cynthia Crossen of The Wall Street Journal
wryly observes that "most books popular a century ago are either dust or gathering it. On the 1909 list, I had heard of only one of the 10 authors, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who wrote mysteries and is said to have invented the phrase, ‘the butler did it.'"

Think too long about this and you may find yourself succumbing to dejection, despair and a desire to soak one's writing manuals in copious amounts of lighter fluid before applying the match -- but only if publication is your ultimate goal. We have to have another motivation, and here Leif Enger's example proves instructive for me. After publishing a series of unsuccessful crime novels with his brother, Enger had (as he says
in an interview with Writers & Books) "pretty much abandoned the dream of being able to make a living of fiction." Instead of pushing his pen to the back of the drawer, he spent the next five years writing Peace Like a River, a novel that's part literary, part magical realism with a smidgen of noir and lots of metered and rhyming epic cowboy verse. In other words, a novel that sounds completely unmarketable. "Somehow losing the impetus made the storytelling itself easier and more enjoyable," Enger notes. "John Gardner said if you're going to write fiction, the spiritual rewards had better be enough." Ironically, Peace not only found a publisher, but also became one of Time's top five novels of the year. Sometimes simply minding the writing business itself can become business indeed.

(Picture: CC 2005 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...


At the same time, I think if you see writing as in any way a vocation (rather than a hobby or stress-reliever), then *submission* and quality submission has to become a goal in and of itself. Otherwise, Niggle's Guilt can become rather dangerous.

But placing one's hopes in the prospect of career authorship seems a recipe for neurosis. "Getting read" seems a much more reasonable goal. (And it's not always through publication--so far, my writing has had far more tangible results in forming meaningful personal connections than in attaining broad circulation. To paraphrase Lewis, even the greatest story is but a mortal, whereas the average man on the street is an immortal, headed for an unimaginable destiny.)

Loren Eaton said...

... quality submission has to become a goal in and of itself.

Yes, agreed. I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't try to get published. But there's such a steep learning curve (particularly in short fiction) that I fear most will bomb out long before their work reaches publication quality if their only motivation is seeing themselves in print.

An anecdote about personal connections: Once I was writing a horror story where I needed medical advice on stabilizing a collapsed tracea. So I called a family friend who's an OR nurse. She's a lovely woman, one of the sort who enjoys afternoon teas and kittens. In other words, not a horror fan. But she helped me immensely with the short and read through several drafts. By the end, she seemed to have enjoyed herself as much as I did. Connections are great fun.

B. Nagel said...

then *submission* and quality submission has to become a goal in and of itself.

Are we still talking about writing?

Loren Eaton said...

Do I dare ask what else we may be submitting?

B. Nagel said...

Ourselves, Loren, our Selves.

Loren Eaton said...

Ah. Well. But you see, if I have to sell myself, I'm afraid I'm in trouble. The market wouldn't appear to support a premium under current projections.